Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ghosts of Drag Queens Past and Present

Back in college I was doing a production of La Cage aux Folles and had not yet seen a real drag show. My mother had. But not me. In fact, when I got the word that I was cast in La Cage I called my mom and squeeled, "I'm in the show!"

"Oh yay! Which drag queen are you?"

"Oh, I'm not a drag queen. I'm a townsperson."

Quiet. Then my mother replied, "Oh," slight disappointment pierced the phone line, "that's good too."

So here I was, not playing a drag queen in my first professional show, but surrounded by friends who were who were aghast that I'd never been to a real drag show. So they whisked me away to one of the few gay bars in town (which was only five minutes from campus by car) and we entered into this dark, smoky bar with low ceilings and sticky floors... the Carousel II. I never really knew why it was called the Carousel II. Rumors were that the Carousel I had burned or that they had once lost their liquor license and it was easier to get one as a new business then to reapply as the old. Regardless, here I stood, nerves trembling (partly from excitement, partly from fear) in the Carousel II.

A spiral stairway led up to the show floor and we climbed up, the thumpa-thumpa music getting stronger and stronger. At the top of the stairs was a tiny room with an even tinier stage tucked in one corner. Short, round tables were scattered around the edge of the stage, accompanied by three or four chairs each, and dozens of other chairs were pushed against the back wall. The place felt crowded, although I was informed by my friends that this was not crowded. We pressed through the masses and found a spot against the back wall. I hopped onto a small ledge while the others took the chairs or stood to see the show.

Now, from later experiences I would learn that drag shows almost never start on time. It's epidemic. If it is scheduled to begin at 11:00pm you might as well get there at 12:10am because you'll have plenty of time to get a drink before the first queen appears. So after 45 minutes or so the hostess came over the speakers, "Ladies and gentlemen..." and so the show began.

The main lights dimmed (more, if that was really possible), other lights shifted to the mylar curtain that was pulled open at the back of the stage and a soft piano began to play. I know this song, I searched my brain. What is this??? Ah, yes. ABBA.

Onto the stage marched this massive drag queen. Her wig was a silver nest of brillo pads and in lieu of a traditional gown she wore a homemade, hugely oversized, "S.O.S." box.

Granted, the costume was a little rough, you could see staples here and then and sometimes, where glue was intended to hold it together, it was peeling back. I imagined she had it in her closet and thought, "I should drag out this old gem and see what I can do with it." So, in my imagination, she dusted it off, picked up some new steel wool at Wal-Mart and headed on down to the bar. As she sang she tosses "samples" to the audience. I remember dodging an oncoming brillo pad as it zipped past my head and hit the back wall... one of the perils of a strong performance I supposed. But even with the risk of injury and the homemade costume I remember thinking that this performer was putting on a great show. I had expected nothing more than a tired queen in a sequined JCPenney's gown but not her. She had put thought into her act. I was sure she might come out next as a tube of Aquafresh or Big League Chew and really wow the audience.

But after her big number she disappeared into the darkness backstage and didn't reappear. Instead a skinny queen in a sequined JCPenney's gown did and I knew right then the difference between Drag and drag. There has to be a show. There has to be drama and heightened reality. It has to be big, bold, glamorous. It has to be something you remember fourteen years later.

So when I saw the current Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles (my first time seeing it staged except for what I saw from the wings back in college) I knew I was in for the S.O.S. pad and not the cheap, sequined gown.

So instead of me giving a lengthy review of the current show, just know this. Go. I promise you will get a Broadway quality S.O.S. pad performance and not a cheap, sequined JCPenney gown. Now go! GO!

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